Proceedings: CROSSROADS & BORDERLANDS:
Narratives of Intersecting Oppressions: Christopher Bell
“To Act Is to Be Committed”:
AIDS Activism and Identity Politics in an English Graduate Program
“Someone who shouts alone is easily suspect. And
that suspicion hurts.” – Pierre Seel
“So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive” – Audre Lorde
It used to be when people asked me why I did the things I did after receiving
a positive HIV diagnosis during the second year of my Masters program
– why I shared my diagnosis in a cover story for the school newspaper;
why I earnestly talked to classes and student organizations about HIV/AIDS;
why I did not contest the Director of Composition’s decision to
“relieve me” of my teaching assignment largely as a result
of the diagnosis; why I protested this shortsighted decision by leaving
the university three months before my degree would have been conferred
– I would reply, “It’s because I was stupid.”
I don’t think that anymore. I now view my reasoning and thought-processes
as much too complex to convey in such a cavalier, throw-away response.
In this paper, I describe some of the episodes occurring prior to my HIV
diagnosis, including the salient, precursory account of a fellow student’s
death from AIDS. I then discuss my diagnosis and the ensuing series of
events that transpired in the English Department. I conclude with an analysis
of the overarching experience, examining its personal impact as well as
its relevance as a cautionary tale for other graduate students.
* * * * *
It should never be argued that I am the most scholarly individual in
the world. My undergraduate grade point average was an undistinguished
2.3 on a 4.0 scale, a 2.7 in my major of English. Clearly, I did not set
academia on fire during those four critical years. I was, in retrospect,
distracted, expending too much energy on extra-curricular pursuits, e.g.,
student government and outside reading. Despite this lack of academic
prowess, I decided to apply to graduate school because I wanted to continue
studying literature: plot development, character depiction, anachronisms,
and the like. Thus, I devised a passable personal statement, suffered
through the General and Subject Test in Literature GREs, begged three
professors for recommendations, and patiently awaited a response. To my
surprise, not only did I gain admission to the one university I applied
to, I was also provided a fellowship as a bonus. Consequently, after taking
a semester off, I began graduate school the following January.
In contrast to my lackluster undergraduate record, I enjoyed some degree
of success that first semester. This could probably be attributed to the
fact that I actually attended the majority of my classes. I even liked
some of them(!), the most engaging being “Theory and Practice of
Composition” which prepared me to teach the following semester.
This second semester, on the other hand, proved disastrous. I had a difficult
time balancing teaching with coursework; as a result, the latter suffered
unreservedly. Perhaps things might have been different if I had felt a
connection to my classes. I couldn’t however because most of them
were immersed in theory and criticism, and I deemed it disingenuous to
apply yet another postmodernist-Lacanian perspective to The Awakening.
The whole enterprise struck me as derivative and meretricious. In her
novel Fear of Flying, Erica Jong flawlessly captures my sentiment:
I had gone to graduate school because I loved literature, but in graduate
school you were not supposed to study literature. You were supposed
to study criticism. Some professor wrote a book “proving”
that Tom Jones was really a Marxist parable. Some other professor wrote
a book “proving” that Tom Jones was really a Christian parable.
Some other professor wrote a book “proving” that Tom Jones
was really a parable of the Industrial Revolution. You were supposed
to keep all the names of the professors and all the theories straight
so that you could pass exams on them. Nobody seemed to give a shit about
your reading Tom Jones as long as you could reel off the names of the
various theories and who invented them [. . .]. Fielding would have
been rolling over in his grave. My response was to sleep through as
much of it as possible (214-215).
And sleep I did. Given the option of attending my seminars or napping,
more often than not, I opted for the latter. Before long, I was mired
in a cycle wherein I was depressed because I neglected my classes and
neglected my classes because I was depressed. The battery of anti-depressants
prescribed by my therapist helped little during this time. What did comfort
me was reverting to my undergraduate tendency of exclusively reading what
I thought I should be reading, the texts which interested me the most.
Accordingly, while my colleagues struggled with Bakhtin, I was engrossed
with the metaphor of the train in Anna Karenina.
A few weeks before the end of this second semester, my lack of class
attendance was brought to the attention of my boss, the Director of Composition.
He called me at home one afternoon to check on me after a colleague had
taught my class two days in a row. I assured him my depression was merely
a stumbling block and promised an imminent recovery. Despite my optimism,
I concluded the semester by taking “incompletes” in my coursework.
I did however manage to evaluate papers and assign grades for the class
I taught, but not without attracting my boss’s continued concern.
For this reason, I recommitted myself to graduate study the following
semester. In addition to finishing my “incompletes” from the
previous term, I excelled in my new classes during the first half of the
semester. My renewed diligence was interrupted one mild day near the end
of spring break. While riding home with a colleague, she asked if I had
“heard” about Billy Vance, an English Ph.D. candidate. After
acknowledging I had “heard” nothing out of the ordinary, my
friend apprised me that Billy was suffering from the final stages of AIDS.
Indeed, three days later, Billy died.
When Billy Vance died, I anticipated an apocalypse of sorts in the English
Department. Instead, life went on as if nothing had happened. I did not
bear witness to a single expression of concern or sympathy over his death.
Whether this reticence in mourning Billy was because the department was
in a collective state of shock (most of us were unaware of his health
status until days, in some cases, hours, prior to his death), or whether
it was due to a sense of disdain because he died from AIDS, I’m
not sure. All I know is that I wanted some form of acknowledgment to give
me closure. I needed to process Billy’s death by talking about it.
Since this exchange was not occurring in the English Department, I decided
to share my thoughts and memories of Billy with the university’s
gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender student organization, the Triangle
Coalition. In summary, the group was surprised to learn that someone on
our campus had died from AIDS, and they spent a good portion of that meeting
discussing AIDS as it affects college students. As a result of this interchange,
I gained some of the closure I needed.
It seems ironic in retrospect that I had to venture outside of the English
Department to process Billy’s death. It baffles me how our field
of study can spend an illimitable amount of time examining representations
of death and human suffering in The Grapes of Wrath, Madame Bovary, “King
Lear,” and countless other canonical works, but when confronted
with death’s reality in everyday life, all of a sudden we become
mute. In his essay The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin recounts
the story of a friend who died from tuberculosis. Baldwin’s community,
the community of the church, does not express sympathy for his friend
because he was a gay man who – like so many gay men who die from
AIDS – ostensibly died because of his “actions.” The
following excerpt from Baldwin’s essay is vividly reminiscent of
my sentiments toward the English Department, my community, following Billy
The [incident] [. . .] haunted me [. . .] in some way, obviously, it
haunts me still. I had the feeling, dimly, then, but very vividly later,
that he died because he had been rejected by the [. . .] community [.
. .] that we had it in our power to bring the light back to his eyes.
He was a sinner and he died, therefore, in sin; but, we are all sinners.
Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone. But I could
not say that, then [. . .].
I was acting, after all, on the moral assumptions I had inherited from
the community that had produced me. I had been told to love everybody.
Whoever else did not believe this, I did. The way of the transgressor
is hard, indeed, but it is hard because the community produces the trangressor
in order to renew itself. I am afraid that this mathematic, this inexorability,
will last as long as life lasts; and I would not have to risk sounding
so grandiose were I not under the necessity of attempting to excavate
the meaning of the word community – which, as I have understood
it, simply means our endless connection with, and responsibility for,
each other (122).
As a member of the English Department community, I was frustrated and
appalled by the silence following Billy’s death. Months later, when
I became apprised of my own HIV-positive status, my actions would reflect
my efforts at combating this silence.
I took a much-needed break that summer. In lieu of enrolling in classes
or teaching, I brainstormed thesis topics and devised a Women’s
Studies-themed syllabus for the class I was scheduled to teach that fall.
When the semester began, I attended classes and worked on preliminary
thesis research. In preparation for doctoral study at another university,
I signed up to retake both GREs and requested Ph.D. applications from
several choice schools. Due to a lingering malaise, my doctor at the Student
Health Center suggested I be tested for HIV antibodies. On the second
Wednesday in October, I received a positive HIV diagnosis.
Twenty minutes after receiving this diagnosis, I inadvertently encountered
the president of the Triangle Coalition. Remembering the sense of closure
I felt when discussing Billy Vance’s death with this group, I asked
her if I could share my diagnosis at their next meeting. She agreed this
would be beneficial for all parties involved. A few days later, I was
in the Women’s Center preparing for class when the editor of the
school newspaper approached me. She explained that she was writing an
article about college students’ attitudes towards AIDS and asked
me for a quote. She had heard me speak about Billy to the Triangle Coalition
earlier that spring and also knew I had integrated an AIDS component in
my previous Composition class. As she was unaware of my positive status,
I viewed this as an incredibly ironic opportunity. For this reason, I
apprised the editor of my recent diagnosis, and expressed my willingness
to discuss it in the newspaper. As a result, I was interviewed for an
article which became the cover story of the newspaper’s Homecoming
issue to be published later that week, nine days after my diagnosis.
Instead of reading about my HIV-positive status in the school newspaper,
I preferred my close friends hear of it from me. With this in mind, I
devoted the three days between the newspaper interview and its publication
to a series of conversations apprising my friends of the situation. One
of these individuals was the Director of Composition. While he expressed
concern about my health, he was alarmed with the effect my “coming
out” in the paper might have on my students. Suggesting I had enough
to contend with and would be better served without the additional responsibility
of teaching, my boss advised me to take the remainder of the semester
off. In lieu of teaching, I was expected to assist in the Composition
office, a form of desk duty. Because I respected this individual and did
not, at the time, wish to consider his line of thinking as discriminatory,
I abided by his decision.
The newspaper was published to great fanfare. I received an immeasurable
amount of support from various members of the campus community, most notably
in the form of invitations to present experiential-based AIDS programs
for several classes and student organizations. In the weeks following
the newspaper’s publication, I had the opportunity to process my
boss’s decision which I could clearly see was specious. At the end
of the semester, I attended a meeting with him wherein I was given permission
to teach the following semester, but only with the stipulation that I
teach an “approved” syllabus, one he would devise for me.
In essence, I had to decide if I wanted to continue in a graduate program
that prides itself on granting its students teaching autonomy, yet asks
me to accept differential treatment. It took me less than a minute to
come to a decision. In addition to declining the offer, I chose not to
enroll in classes the following semester, effectively terminating my relationship
with the English Department and, by extension, the university.
* * * * *
In retrospect, my experience at the university was a particularly heuristic
one in terms of my personal identity development. There I was at the time
of my HIV diagnosis: a black gay man teaching a Women’s Studies-themed
class. This seems to be the sort of diversity higher education in the
late 20th/early 21st century strives for. Nevertheless, my teaching duties
were relieved because I added the tenet of HIV-positive not to my curriculum,
but to my identity. This puzzles me, especially considering I had integrated
an AIDS component in the previous class I taught. The dynamic is peculiar:
I could talk about HIV from a theoretical perspective, but I could not
teach as an HIV-positive person.
Perhaps I might have understood my boss’s decision if I had decided
to abandon the Women’s Studies syllabus and teach a singular-focused
HIV-related one. But I made no intimations toward this. I simply wanted
to continue teaching the class I had begun. In its adopted statement on
graduate students, the Modern Language Association asserts, “Graduate
students’ freedom of inquiry is necessarily qualified by their still
being learners in the profession; nonetheless, their faculty mentors should
afford them latitude and respect as they decide how they will engage in
teaching [. . .]” (744). Based on my experience, particularly the
condition that I could only teach an “approved” syllabus,
I do not believe I was afforded this latitude and respect.
Moreover, Anthony D’Augelli, professor of human development at
Penn State notes, “One of the espoused values of higher education
is to advance personal intellectual development while simultaneously developing
a broader sense of personal responsibility to others” (214). In
keeping with D’Augelli’s view, it was essential for me to
engage the campus community, if only temporarily, in a series of discussions
about HIV/AIDS. Despite this belief, the message I received from the English
Department was that I should be silent. Ultimately, this ideology reminds
me of the propaganda films of the 1950’s wherein elementary school
children were instructed to “duck and cover” should they see
the flash from a nuclear explosion – as if cowering in fear was
going to protect them from the radioactive fall-out. To reiterate, my
goal was to stimulate discussion about a disease that people have historically
been ashamed and/or afraid to talk about. It is unfortunate this attempt
was encouraged by virtually every facet of the campus community except
the English Department.
In essence, while I wish things had been brought to a more satisfying
conclusion in the English Department, I harbor no regrets for the decisions
I made. I did, quite simply, what I know should have been done. Likewise,
in The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin contends, “People find it very
difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to
be committed is to be in danger” (9). By virtue of having lived
through this experience, I know what it means to be in danger, and I accept
this risk as a result of my choice to link my academic pursuits to my
commitment to social justice. I hope that other graduate students who
feel as strongly as I would be willing to do the same.
* * * * *
It has been said that people enjoy happy endings. Here’s mine:
One month after departing from the university, I received a letter from
the Provost. This missive arrived unexpectedly; thus, I curiously tore
open the envelope and drew out the letter. The first word read: “Congratulations.”
I read on. In short, one of the students who was in the class in which
my teaching duties were “relieved” had read the article in
the school newspaper. She had also heard me speak about AIDS to a Freshman
Experience class. This student was struck by my efforts and wrote a letter
nominating me for the university’s Human Rights Award. I won the
award, and returned to the university six weeks after my departure to
accept it. It seems fitting that I received this honor because although
the university confers several hundred Masters degrees each year, only
one Human Rights Award is given. All things considered, I like to think
I earned it.
Baldwin, James. The Evidence of Things Not Seen. New York: Henry Holt
and Company, 1985.
---. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage, 1962.
D’Augelli, Anthony. “Teaching Lesbian and Gay Development.”
Culture and Ideology in Higher Education: Advancing a Cultural Agenda.
Ed. William G. Tierney. Praeger: New York, 1991. 213-233.
Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying. New York: Plume, 1973.
Lorde, Audre. “A Litany for Survival.” The Black Unicorn.
New York: Norton, 1978. 31-32.
Modern Language Association of America. “Statement on Graduate
Students.” PMLA 114 (2001): 742-746.
Seel, Pierre. I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror.
New York: Basic Books, 1995.